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31 December 2020

How the Covid-19 vaccine could help the homeless

As winter continues and a new year begins, the government must learn lessons on addressing homelessness. 

By Samir Jeraj

This year, the UK and other governments embarked upon an unprecedented campaign to house and shelter rough sleepers in response to the coronavirus pandemic. From London to San Francisco, what had seemed impossible – mass housing of people formerly living on the streets – was evident around the world.   

But as winter continues and a new year approaches in which Covid-19 vaccines will be available, there are lessons for governments to learn on how to address homelessness beyond the end of the pandemic.   

From March to June, around 15,000 people were helped in England through the Everyone In programme to house rough sleepers in hotels. An article in The Lancet estimated that some 21,000 cases of Covid-19 were prevented specifically as a result of these measures. While such schemes have come to an end on a national level, others are still running in London, Scotland and Wales. Compared with Paris, where 40 per cent of homeless people are believed to have Covid-19 and some hostels are reporting infection rates of up to 94 per cent, the UK is heading into 2021 having avoided a disaster among people who are homeless.   

However, between those who have since left those hotels and the new groups of people who lost their homes during the pandemic, the overall number appears to be around the same as it was before Covid-19, according to Matt Downie of Crisis, a homelessness charity. He adds that people who were given emergency hotel assistance received much better treatment and help than ever before. But for those who were left out, it was worse than it would normally be on the streets.   

Read more: The fleeting ambition of “Everyone In” exposes England’s rough sleeping blindspot​

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In London, there are still people bedding down along the Strand, Covent Garden and the Embankment. Some are in sleeping bags; others have amassed cardboard for extra warmth and shelter.   

Crisis has written to the minister for Covid vaccine development, Nadhim Zawahi, to ask urgently for homeless people to be a priority and is working with the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation to further this case. 

“People who are homeless suffer from terrible health inequalities,” explains Downie. Early access to the vaccine would also allow some of the night shelter and Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP) services to reopen. Downie estimates there are 6,000 fewer night shelter beds across England because such shelters have either closed or reduced the number of beds due to the pandemic. If these opened, they would address “immediate risk to life”, he says. 

The government has provided lots of small pots of money to help address the problems, “but it doesn’t add up to a strategy”, says Downie, neither for keeping people safe from the virus nor as a stepping stone to ending rough sleeping. By contrast, Scotland has decided to “turbocharge” its existing strategy for ending homelessness, closing night shelters and getting people into housing.   

Read more: John Bird: “I have never lived through anything else like this – and no one else has”  

In England, the government has a target to end homelessness by the end of this parliament. However, it has neither a prevention strategy nor the serious ambition to build social housing at the scale needed. Added to this are the 98,000 households in temporary accommodation, including 127,240 children. Traumatic childhood experiences such as homelessness raise the risk of problems later in life, from poor educational attainment to becoming homeless as an adult. Without a longer-term strategy, there is a very real risk that the people in temporary housing today will be sleeping rough in the years to come. 

This year showed what the government can achieve in keeping people without a home relatively safe from the virus. In 2021, it needs to demonstrate at least that level of effort, planning and coordination in vaccinating those same people and in moving to put an end to homelessness. 

Read more: Why Covid-19 will hit the homeless hard​  

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